By July 14, 2013 6 Comments Read More →

The Racist Origins of the term “Thug” and How It Relates to the Trayvon Martin Shooting


Throughout the Trayvon Martin trial – and to be sure it was Travyon Martin who was put on trial for his own death, not George Zimmerman – many Caucasian supporters of Zimmerman used the term “thug” casually to describe the 17 year old honor student, Trayvon Martin.

Why was Martin a “thug”? Because he had a picture of a gun and marijuana smoke on his Facebook page. Of course, they never knew that in the beginning, but once they found out this convenient bit of information, they quickly absorbed it into the narrative of Zimmerman’s stalking of the youth.

Never mind that millions of Caucasian teens have pictures of guns on their Facebook page, and they are just considered “country” or part of “gun culture.” Never mind the fact that the vast majority of Caucasian teens have smoked marijuana. When it is a 17 year old honor student, he is a “thug,” even when he is armed only with a cell phone, Skittles, ice tea and the color of his skin…

The late, great, social activist and commentator Tupac Shakur explained what “thug” meant to him, understanding that this term was used in a very racial context in the United States. Take a listen to his poignant words at the Indiana Black Expo, in 1993:

When I say ‘Thug Life,’ I mean that shit
Cause these white folks see us as thugs
I don’t care what y’all think
I don’t care if you think you a lawyer, if you a man, if you an ‘African-American’
If you whatever the f*ck you think you are
We thugs and n*gg@s to these motherf*ckers…

Tupac was right. When it comes to many “white folks” and certainly the vast majority of Zimmerman’s defenders, any African American youth who represents cultural norms of dress, music, speech, or anything else that makes them uneasy, is a “thug.” When Trayvon Martin is seen as a “thug” for wearing a hoodie, and walking home to watch a game with his family, then it is clear that “thug” needs racially unpacked.

To be clear, the term “thug” is racial in origins. That is to say that its use by Europeans very quickly became absorbed as racial – racist – slang.

The word tuggee (ठग्गी) comes from Hindi thag ‘thief’, from Sanskrit sthaga ‘scoundrel’, from sthagati ‘to conceal’. It was an Indian network of secret fraternities, cult-like in many ways, who were engaged in robbing and killing British colonialist. To the British, any brown-skinned face that they saw on the road, or in their imagination, was a “thug” coming to get them, while they innocently made their way through the lands they exploited and colonized.

This is the origin of the term “thug”, as many Indian words passed into common English during British Imperial rule of India. British colonists, however, did not refer to other European imperialists as “thugs,” it was specifically a term in British parlance for the dark skinned “natives” that they feared.

Today, the term is applied to any African American who a Caucasian is afraid might rob them, rape them, kill them, or – in the case of George Zimmerman, burglarize houses in the neighborhood his future step-mother lived in.

To racists in America today, a Trayvon Martin with Skittles, ice tea and a cell phone is a “thug”; Amadou Diallo with keys in his hand is a “thug,” and if you are African American, the message is clear, your children are “thugs”. America sent a message with the Zimmerman acquittal. That message is that if you are suspected of “thuggery” you are guilty until proven innocent. Your very appearance, your Facebook images, your toke of marijuana makes you guilty of a capital offense. It seems that Tupac had it right all along.


6 Comments on "The Racist Origins of the term “Thug” and How It Relates to the Trayvon Martin Shooting"

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  1. Richard Gearon says:

    Trayvon Martin was an “honor student?” That’s the most hysterical thing I’ve heard yet from the apologists for his murderous conduct. What’s next? Calling someone a ‘killer,’ ‘robber,’ ‘hoodlum’ or ‘urban terrorist’ will be considered “racist?”

    • Angel says:

      Need I remind you that Trayvon was the VICTIM here, not the “murderer”?? Your “Killer” or “Urban Terrorist” is George Zimmerman! Just the very fact that you unabashedly reversed their roles based purely on skin color alone, as well as denied the PUBLIC RECORD that he WAS an honor student, shows your nauseating racism. YOU, sir, are MUCH more of a Menace and “Urban Terrorist” than Trayvon EVER was!

      • Richard Gearon says:

        Angel, if that really is your name, how long have you been required to shoot your dope between your toes? That must be extremely annoying, at least it would be to a non-junkie. There is a whole plethora of organizations which can help you with your addiction(s). Please avail yourself of the services they can provide to one, such as yourself, at your earliest convenience. Thank you very much. You are NOT a stupid person (using “unabashedly” correctly tells me that), but you have some SERIOUS mental issues.

        • Angel says:

          I have mental issues because I pointed out how very stupid YOUR reasoning is? Sir (and that’s being downright magnanimous!) your thinking is fully trashed. If you are shooting through your toes (I wasn’t aware that it could be done) then you are shooting something that is causing you brain damage. Only one such as yourself, a current drug user, would be aware of such an odd spot to shoot up. Personally until this moment I was unaware of ANYWHERE to shoot ANYTHING. You, on the other hand, are clearly a delusional racist. Everyone knows this so I need say nothing more as you’ve already highlighted my point FOR me with your trolling.

          End of discussion.

  2. Sasha says:

    How dare you libel the name of Saint Trayvon the Innocent like that.

    If he tried to murder neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman by bashing his head into concrete, that’s because of institutional racism and isn’t his fault in any way whatsoever.

  3. Nunya Beeswax says:

    The word “thug” was never exclusively applied to brown-skinned people. Check the OED for references; there are separate tracings of its original use (as a proper noun) to refer to Thuggees, and of its expanded use to refer to criminals. The first recorded use in the latter case is a reference to “Glasgow Thuggery”. To the best of my recollection the Scottish people tend to be white.

    Those with long memories may recall that in the mid-20th century the term was liberally applied to members of the NSDAP. Again, Germans are, as a rule, quite fair-skinned.

    It seems to me your point could be made just as easily without reference to half-assed sociolinguistics.

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